Vatican Moves To Extend Secret Deal With Beijing

The Vatican has decided to extend a secret 2018 agreement with Beijing that governs the appointment of bishops in China. The 2018 Sino-Vatican deal, signed in the midst of crackdowns on religious expression, is believed to give Beijing the power to appoint Catholic bishops, pending the Pope’s final approval. This follows news that Chinese hackers gained access to Vatican networks before the start of negotiations on the deal’s extension. For the AP, Nicole Winfield reported on the consensus reached by the Pope and the Pope Emeritus on the perceived necessity of a deal with China:

The Vatican is seeking to extend the deal with China, which envisages a process of dialogue in selecting bishops. It signed it in 2018 in hopes it would help unite China’s Catholics, who for seven decades have been split between those belonging to an official, state-sanctioned church and an underground church loyal to Rome.

The question of bishop nominations has long vexed Vatican-China relations, with the Holy See insisting on the pope’s divine right to name the successors of the apostles and Beijing considering such nominations foreign infringement on its sovereignty.

The Vatican has defended the 2018 accord against criticism that Francis sold out the underground faithful, saying the deal was necessary to prevent an even worse schism in the Chinese church after China named bishops without the pope’s consent. [Source]

The P.R.C. is seemingly content with the deal. Ministry of Foreign Affairs Spokesperson Zhao Lijian said, “the interim agreement on the appointment of bishops between China and the Vatican has been implemented successfully.” In a speech delivered on the 150th anniversary of Italian Catholic missionaries’ arrival in China, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican Secretary of State, argued that the deal was purely pastoral, not political, and that it would prevent the illegal ordination of bishops by Chinese authorities. During an interview with Crux, a website specializing in coverage of the Catholic Church, a second high-ranking Vatican diplomat, British Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher, defended the continuation of the accords as a necessary step to maintain the Catholic Church’s relationship with Chinese clergy:

Gallagher conceded implementation has been rocky, saying one reason the Vatican has proposed a two-year renewal for now is because, “We’re not 99 percent happy about things, we have lots of reservations and lots of things haven’t worked out the way we hoped.”

Yet he also insisted that despite criticism from Pompeo and others that the Vatican has gained little for making its concessions to Beijing, there actually are concrete results.

“The fact we have managed to get all the bishops of China in communion with the Holy Father for the first time since the 1950s, and that the Chinese authorities allow the pope a modest say in the appointment of bishops but ultimately the final word, is quite remarkable,” Gallagher said. [Source]

At Foreign Policy, Benedict Rogers, the founder of Hong Kong Watch and a Catholic, penned a blistering critique of the deal:

China is already breaking the deal. Only last week in Jiangxi province, dissenting Catholic priests have been placed under house arrest, in breach of an agreement to protect clergy from coercion. Priests from Yujiang diocese, under surveillance, have been forbidden from “engaging in any religious activity in the capacity of clergy” after they refused to join the regime’s so-called “patriotic church,” and Bishop Lu Xinping was barred from celebrating Mass.

This was predictable from the start. Everything about the deal was wrong.

Firstly, the timing: in the midst of the worst crackdown on religion since the Cultural Revolution.

The text was, and remains, secret, so no one other than its negotiators and the pope know the details.

And the result was to give an atheist dictatorship a decision-making role in the appointment of bishops. [Source]

A five-part series reviewing the impact of the Sino-Vatican deal on Chinese Catholics, published by the Vatican-affiliated Asia News, described increased surveillance, closed houses of worship, and citizens torn between their faith and their nation. In response to the renewal of the deal, “underground” Bishop Guo Xijin—recognized by the Catholic Church but not by Chinese authorities—announced his retirement in a self-deprecating speech in which he shared that “in the face of this age that changes so rapidly, I feel almost incapable.” In 2018, Bishop Guo agreed to serve under a previously excommunicated bishop picked by Beijing in order to accommodate the Vatican’s deal. Bishop Guo formerly presided over the Mindong diocese in Fujian, seen as a bellwether of Sino-Vatican relations. In a 2017 article for the Jesuit-run America Magazine, Ian Johnson detailed the history and practice of Chinese Catholicism, including the origins of the “underground” church:

After the Communists set up the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association in 1957, state officials began appointing their own bishops. Many Catholics began to feel uncomfortable about attending churches under government control and some stopped going. Others set up an underground Catholic Church in certain parts of China. This church does not recognize the “patriotic” church’s legitimacy. But even the underground church has a fairly rigid hierarchy, with appointments requiring approval by highers-up in China.

Over the years, the split between the “open” and the underground church has become less pronounced, especially after Benedict XVI’s letter to the church in China in 2007. In it the pope essentially said the underground church should not be a permanent institution (“the clandestine condition is not a normal feature of the Church’s life”) and that Catholics can participate in services offered by the state-recognized church.

But state control over religion is still problematic, hampering growth and regularly spilling into public view. In 2012, for example, the government appointed Thaddeus Ma Daqin auxiliary bishop of Shanghai. But Bishop Ma announced his resignation from the Patriotic Catholic Association at his episcopal ordination Mass—apparently a protest against the government’s regulation of religion. He was put under house arrest at the Sheshan Seminary, where he largely remains today, a situation that shut down one of the country’s most important seminaries for over a year. [Source]

Taiwanese diplomats are wary of the Vatican’s deal with China. Taiwan’s ambassador to the Vatican warned that the deal might leave Taiwan  “irrelevant.” The Vatican maintains a mission in Taiwan, and has never recognized the People’s Republic of China, but observers speculated that the bishop accords may lead to the downgrading of Taiwan’s diplomatic status by the Holy See.

Catholic leaders in Hong Kong are likewise opposed to the deal. Cardinal Joseph Zen, whose 2006 appointment upset Beijing, has been an outspoken supporter of the Hong Kong protest movement and critic of the Vatican’s rapprochement with China. In late September, Cardinal Zen travelled to the Vatican unsuccessfully seeking an audience with the pope in order to warn him about cooperation with China, among other issues. At the Washington Post in August, George Weigel called for the Vatican to raise its voice against alleged injustices in Hong Kong and China:

As the democratic world scrambles to devise adequate countermeasures to China’s increasing repression in Hong Kong and beyond, there is one currently disengaged actor that could play a productive role: the Vatican. In the past, under Pope John Paul II, the Holy See was uncompromising in defense of fundamental human rights. That approach is needed now — but would require an overdue recalibration of the Holy See’s recent policy toward China.

In recent times, Vatican diplomacy in China has begun from the premise that a smoother relationship on ecclesiastical issues will clear the path to what a generation of Vatican diplomats have sought: full diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic. These diplomats imagine this will give the Vatican a place at the table where the great issues of world affairs are sorted out. The eagerness with which this putative grail has been pursued baffles many. The failed Vatican Ostpolitik in Central and Eastern Europe during the 1960s and 1970s succeeded only in disabling and demoralizing local Catholic communities, while the Vatican itself was deeply penetrated by communist intelligence services. [Source]

American Secretary of State Mike Pompeo criticized the deal in a public letter, published in mid-September, which called on the Vatican to act as a “moral witness.” When Pompeo visited the Vatican in the weeks after the publication of his letter, the Pope refused to meet with him. In Foreign Policy, Anna Momigliano argued that Pompeo’s trip was less concerned with the rights of Chinese believers than with American partisan politics:

The venue itself “already says something about the intention of those who wrote this article,” the Vatican’s secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, told reporters. “It was a declaration of which side Pompeo was on,” Massimo Faggioli, a church historian at Villanova University who recently wrote the book The Liminal Papacy of Pope Francis, told me. Pompeo, an Evangelical Presbyterian, also met with Italy’s prime minister and foreign minister late last month to discuss China—according to the Italian press he warned them against Beijing’s involvement in 5G networks.

In this context, Faggioli points out, Pompeo’s intrusion into Chinese-Vatican relations had more to do with U.S. electoral politics than with China: “He was telling the Catholic and the evangelical right that he’s on their side and doesn’t care about clashing with the pope.” The Holy See has no official diplomatic relations with China and, far from being a comprehensive deal, the 2018 provisional agreement between the two that is on track to be renewed this month is strictly specific to the ordination of bishops in mainland China, which is not a top priority for U.S. President Donald Trump. The Catholic vote in the United States is, however. [Source]


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